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Does using formal methods mean anything?

What counts as use of formal methods in software development?

Mathematics is involved, but then mathematics is involved in almost every aspect of software.

Formal methods are founded on the lie that doing things in mathematics means the results must be correct. There are plenty of mistakes in published mathematical proofs, as any practicing mathematician will tell you. The stuff that gets taught at school and university has been thoroughly checked and stood the test of time; the new stuff could be as bug written as software.

In the 1970s and 1980s formals methods was all about use of notation and formalisms. Writing algorithms, specifications, requirements, etc. in what looked like mathematical notation was called formal methods. The hope was that one day a tool would be available to check that what had been written did indeed have the characteristics being claimed, e.g., consistency, completeness, fault free (whatever that meant).

While everybody talked about automatic checking tools, what people spent their time doing was inventing new notations and formalisms. You were not a respected formal methods researcher unless you had several published papers, and preferably a book, describing your own formalism.

The market leader was VDM, mainly due to the work/promotion by Dansk Datamatik Center. I was a fan of Denotational semantics. There are even ISO standards for a couple of formal specification languages.

Fast forward to the last 10 years. What counts as done using formal methods today?

These days researchers who claim to be “doing formal methods” seem to be by writing code (which is an improvement over writing symbols on paper; it helps that today’s computers are orders of magnitude more powerful). The code written involves proof assistants such as Coq and Isabelle and programming languages such as OCaml and Haskell.

Can anybody writing code in OCaml or Haskell claim to be doing formal methods, or does a proof assistant of some kind have to be involved in the process?

If a program’s source code is translated into a form that can be handled by a proof assistant, can the issue of correctness of the translation be ignored? There is one research group who thinks it is ok to “trust” the translation process.

If one component of a program (say, parts of a compiler’s code generator) have been analyzed using a proof assistant, is it ok to claim that the entire program (perhaps the syntax and semantics processing that happens before code generation) has been formally verified? There is one research group who think such claims can be made about the entire program.

If I write a specification in Visual Basic, map this specification into C and involve formal methods at some point(s) in the process, then is it ok for me to claim that the correctness of the C implementation has been formally verified? There seem to be enough precedents for this claim to be viable.

In this day and age, is the use of formal methods anything more than a sign of intellectual dishonesty? Or is it just that today’s researchers are lazy, unwilling to put the effort into making sure that claims of correctness are proved start to finish?

  1. April 24th, 2017 at 11:26 | #1

    > If I write a specification in Visual Basic, map this specification into C and involve formal methods at some point(s) in the process, then is it ok for me to claim that the correctness of the C implementation has been formally verified?

    Yes. Formal verification means checking that program behavior matches the specified behavior. Even if your specification is garbage, you can still formally verify the program.

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